Lava Falls

A piñon next to a place where orange rock is coming out of the lava
A short trail which leads you past some amazing lava formations. If you are in the area, you really should take this trail.

Hike data:

Controlling agency: Bureau of Land Management; El Malpais National Conservation Area
Region: West-central; El Malpais National Monument.
Not on the monument, but in the adjacent conservation area.
Elevation:
start: 7119ft; 2170m end: 7139ft; 2176m
min: 7119ft; 2170m max: 7139ft; 2176m
elevation gain/loss: 19ft; 6m.
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Length: 0.99mi; 1.60km.
Trail:
surface: rock
condition: Excellent
ease of following: A cairn trail.
obstacles: None.
Except for the third cairn, all are easy to see and follow. For cairn number three, look further up the hill (this makes sense if you are there).
Fee: $0.00.
Season: All year. Summer will be hot. Be sure you have enough water and sunscreen.
Dogs: Unknown. Dogs on lava are not a good idea (it is hard on their feet) unless you have boots for your dog.
Bikes: Unknown. Bikes are not a good idea due to the sharp lava being hard on tires.
Handicapped accessible: No.
General notes: Boots with good ankle support are important, as the lava is uneven. It is also sharp, so a fall could lead to an unpleasant injury; bring a first-aid kit.
Trailhead facilities: picnic area. The picnic table has no shade. trash can(s).
Hike attractions: geology, scenery.

When we hiked it:

Date: 2000-09-17
Time it took us: 1:00.
Usage (people/hour): 1.00.
Cleanliness: 10.

Waypoints:

Waypoint Type Description
LFTHTrailheadLava Falls trailhead

Maps:

Paper maps:
Map name Cartographer Year Scale Topo map? Online access Notes
El Malpais Recreation Map and Guide BLM 2008 1:100000 Y from Amazon (purchase) Great overview map for El Malpais area, including showing land ownership.
Geologic Map of El Malpais Lava Field and Surrounding Areas, Cibola County, NM USGS (Charles Maxwell) 1986 1:62500 Y No online copies. For sale at the three visitor centers (NPS, BLM, Northern NM) around El Malpais.
Guide to Indian Country of Arizona Colorado New Mexico Utah Automobile Club of Southern California 1998 1:0 N from Amazon (purchase) Good overview road map for northwest NM. No scale is given on the map. The corner coordinates are approximate.
Wildernesses of New Mexico US Forest Service 1981 1:1000000 N No online copies. Base map with national forests, wilderness areas and highways.

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Getting to the trailhead:

Exit I-40 at Exit 89, NM 117. Head South on NM 117 for about 28.7 miles. A sign indicates the turnoff to the west for the Lava Falls Trailhead. Follow the gravel road for about 0.8 miles; it dead-ends at the trailhead.
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About the hike:

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This hike is a cairn trail. Starting out from the trailhead, you climb a small rise. This is all of the elevation gain you will get on the hike. Once you are on top of the rise, what you see is pictured to the right. There are pits where the lava collapsed into a hole. You are walking on pahoehoe lava, which is much nicer than hiking on aa lava.
After a short distance on top of the rise, you slowly descend into a valley. You can see where the lava flowed down into this valley off on the far wall.
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Life on the lava is hard. This piñon is probably quite old, even though it is less than four feet high.
You reach the far side of the valley and then begin to follow the valley wall a short distance. Where the valley wall begins to turn right, you can see where the lava flowed over an old, burst pressure bubble in the lava, forming columns that look like dripped candle wax.
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Following the lava fall around to the right, you enter a pit into which the lava flowed. The trail ends in the center of this pit; Take some time to look around at all of the different lava formations. Do look with care, as the lava is quite sharp.
A little to the left of center (if you are standing at the entrance to the pit), is a roughly 6ft (2m) deep crack with a fern growing in it. Obviously the climate at the bottom of the crack is moister than what you are experiencing at the top.
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This "lavasicle" looks like a small stalactite.

Plants we saw along the trail:

Reader comments about this hike:

On Wed May 25 15:39:33 2005 Doug Frazier from Bethesda Maryland said:
Very interesting - and fun, if a little wierd -- worth seeing; one must get on the malpais itself to get a true sense of it, and it's an easy hike to do (and fun, again, following the big cairns across the moonscape). The rough, dull-black pahoehoe lava, cracked and fissured, dipping here and there into - old sinkholes? burst lava bubbles? The brilliant red spots of claret cup cactus blooms here and there, the sage-green bushes scattered about, the frankly hazardous abrasive quality of the porous stone (but great traction), and the Falls itself, a big circular depression into which lava flowed into and then out again through a cleft -- one feels like a bug on hot tar, just thinking about modern-day flows like from Kilauea and Etna - adds a little mental thrill to the experience. The weather was sweet, just a little cool and high hazey overcast, so we didn't suffer from the heat (May's a good time to visit).

One doesn't necessarily think about how volcanic a continent North America is, but here and there one gets a better idea. Didn't do the lava tubes though. Nice Ranger lady at the visitor's center, too. Kudos - an unexpected enjoyable Menument!

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